If you think your uncle always takes forever to snap that holiday photo, consider the patience you’d need for the efforts of Australian artist Darren Siwes: He can spend 12 hours composing a family portrait, and that’s after several days of preparation to make sure the location and lighting are exactly right. But Siwes has a lot more on his hands than just a camera; he meticulously designs and photographs tableaux vivants—disquieting theatrical visions of domestic scenes complete with costumed actors, as well as ghostly portraits of himself and his wife. Twelve of these works form a small but intense show at Magnan Projects that’s centered around race and identity, two subjects that Siwes, a man of Dutch and Aboriginal descent, has been exploring for some years.
It was Siwes’s son, Noah, posing an innocent question, who inspired six of the photographs on one wall (a sequence selected from a series of 14). The fair-skinned boy—Siwes’s wife is a white Australian—wanted to know why his Nana looked different. After getting the explanation, he declared a new desire, which became the title for the series: “Mum, I want to be brown.” The simple statement probably reflected only an interest in color, not race. But Siwes develops it along more complex lines, commenting on Australia’s treatment of its indigenous population, the early-20th-century eugenics movement, and, more broadly, racist fears of miscegenation. Siwes has given his actors period costumes, furniture, and props to suggest the Australian middle class of 1901, the year the country’s colonies became a federation and a series of laws began a steady degradation of Aboriginal rights that would go on for decades.
But Siwes isn’t really going for historical accuracy. Rather, he places his themes within a stagey Twilight Zone environment of black skies, mostly expressionless figures, and household interiors strangely transplanted outside. Shot at night and lit by mercury-vapor lamps of various tints, his scenes all depict white children dreaming, in some way, of brown skin, while their stone-faced parents often sit or stand stiffly to one side as disdainful moral judges. In Little Brown Boogey Man, a girl lies in bed with a fearful expression, sensing the angry boy underneath it whose face wears a mask of brown paint, applied in the style of blackface. Another scene has a girl sharing a hospital gurney with an Aboriginal woman and receiving a transfusion; dark blood flowing through a tube has given the girl the same brown mask. In Placebo, two girls who have turned brown hold glasses of white milk—the remedy, as prescribed by a stern doctor, that will presumably cure their taboo transformation. In all the images, Siwes is essentially doubling the public exposure of these private beliefs and fears—first by placing the scenes outdoors (the house itself always lurks in a shadowy background), and then by photographing them.
Using lights and shadows like paint, Siwes achieves colors so rich and contrasts so sudden that his foreground objects can appear holographic. The depth of field is remarkable. He heightens such effects by using Cibachrome prints, in which dyes embedded in the paper grab the images and don’t let them spread, keeping the whites clean, the colors super-saturated, and the edges exceedingly sharp. The hues of They Were Playing Mirror, for example, are particularly strong—almost garish—suggesting, it seems, the immorality of the game in the foreground: Pretending to look through a mirror, one child sees the other as brown-faced. In the background, the mother sits in a heavy flowing dress of exaggerated blue, a color that emphasizes her cold moral authority and obliviousness to her children’s desires.
But Siwes is more than just a colorist. He’s precise, too, with composition, often placing his objects, figures, and even shadows in careful geometric arrangements. In this regard, Siwes readily admits his influences: Jeffrey Smart, Australian expat and painter of sparsely populated urban landscapes, hard-edged and full of angles; and, going back a few centuries, Caravaggio and Piero della Francesca, the painter most famous for The Flagellation, a model of linear perspective and proportion. It’s this painting, in particular, that seems present in Siwes’s brown-face series; The Flagellation‘s two distinct zones—the background whipping scene and the foreground figures who completely ignore it—are reflected in the divide between Siwes’s children and the passive adults.
Geometry and perspective are more prominent (and the colors more subtle) in the artist’s series of photographs titled “Just Is,” a play on the word justice. Also shot at night, the images all show a partially transparent man and woman, both wearing masquerade masks, standing at a distance from each other in front of buildings in London and Australia; most of them feature Siwes and his wife, both smartly dressed and alternating between the foregound and background, depending on the location (Siwes stands in front when it’s Australia). Though less complex in composition than those in the other series, these works required similar stage-managing efforts. To get the effect of transparency, Siwes used long exposure times, between 45 seconds and five minutes. He’d shoot the background, cover the camera with a cloth, jump into the scene, and then have an assistant, armed with a stopwatch, lift the cloth to continue the exposure. The elapsed time, Siwes explains, also represents history and gradual change, especially involving attitudes of whites toward blacks.
With titles like The Amelioration of the Octoroon and The Clouded Eye of the Unrational Mind, these works address several racial issues, including identity (masks), belonging and blending in (transparency and location changes), and escape from the Australian stigma of being Aboriginal (the business suit). Most effective is Tabula Rasa, which positions Siwes and his wife before a dilapidated rural shack; the image succinctly captures a history of segregation while also presenting, with the couple’s determined stance, a defiance toward any turning back. Seen altogether, though, the individual photographs in this series lose some of their effectiveness in the repetition. The buildings change, but the figures’ postures don’t. There’s really no growth from one image to the next.
But it’s to Siwes’s credit that his messages never dominate. The images’ moods, touching on the nightmarish and full of tension, are what first unsettle you. Then you begin to understand the context. Encountering Siwes’s dreamscapes— especially the vibrant family tableaus—is like first hearing Billie Holiday girlishly sing “Strange Fruit” and then realizing, after a shudder, what the song’s about.